North Korea takes steps to restart nuke plant

UN inspectors have been barred and cameras removed from the Yongbyon processing plant.

Donald kirk
'We want action': Lieutenant Lee, a North Korean, echoes his nation's anger that the US has kept it on its list of states sponsoring terrorism.

A long-serving North Korean Army officer reacts disdainfully to all the dialogue he's seen here at this historic truce village straddling the line between the two Koreas.

"Soldiers don't like talks," says the officer, who reluctantly identifies himself only as Lieutenant Lee. "Have you heard of action for action," he asks. "It is not necessary to talk about six-party talks. Soldiers don't like negotiations without any results. We want action."

The "action" he refers to is the US promise to remove North Korea from the State Department's list of countries sponsoring terrorism. North Koreans say President Bush has violated the pledge, and they cite that failure as the reason for restarting their nuclear program.

The United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency announced Wednesday that, as requested by North Korea, it had removed the seals and surveillance cameras that have stopped nuclear development at the nuclear complex at Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang. North Korea then barred UN nuclear inspectors from the facility and said it plans to reactivate the plant within a week, according to the IAEA.

Still, some analysts wonder how serious North Korea is about restarting its nuclear program, as it vowed last Friday, reversing steps taken to disable it as part of the six-party agreement signed in February 2007.

"North Korea needs some leverage," says Choi Jin Wook, director of North Korean studies at the Korean Institute of National Unification, affiliated with the South's unification ministry. "They need to prepare for next year," when the US has a new president who may be willing to drop North Korea from the list of terrorist countries.

Why is removal from the list so important? "It's symbolic," says Mr. Choi. "Then they can say the US is not our enemy any more. That's an important condition for South Korea and Japan to provide investment. They will have more freedom to negotiate."

Choi says it will take several months to restart the North's aging five-megawatt reactor but that technicians can resume reprocessing spent fuel rods right away.

Kim Tae Woo, senior fellow at the Korean Institute of Defense Analyses, affiliated with South Korea's defense ministry, is not impressed by what he views as dramatic gestures.

"I am not taking this very seriously," he says. "The terrorist list is not important at this moment." The real question, says he says, "is what happens next" – whether North Korea will ever be willing to give up the six to a dozen nuclear bombs it has produced.

The United States, Russia, Japan, China and South Korea have been engaged with North Korea in negotiations aimed at getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program in exchange for aid and other incentives.

Neither Lieutenant Lee nor the tour guides leading a tightly controlled trip through the country talk about the specifics of what's happening at the nuclear complex. But their anger at the US's "lack of action" is palpable.

"We began to dismantle our nuclear program and sent 10,000 pages to Washington saying everything we are doing," says one of the omnipresent guides on a tour of Pyongyang, the capital, about 90 miles north of here. He says the documents, turned over in June, should suffice for the US to stop demanding a "verification protocol" as a condition for removal from the US blacklist.

"We already demolished our cooling tower," he continues, referring to the blast in June that seemed to symbolize the end of the North's nuclear program. "But that's no answer for the Americans."

"Koreans don't want war," he says, "but now the situation in Washington is very tense because of the American government."

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